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Irish Immigration 1800-1880 Essay, Research Paper

INTRODUCTION The history of Ireland “that most distressful nation” is full of drama and tragedy,

but one of the most interesting stories is about what happened to the Irish during the mid-nineteenth

century and how millions of Irish came to live in America (Purcell 31). Although the high point of the

story was the years of the devastating potato famine from 1845 to 1848, historians have pointed out

that immigrating from Ireland was becoming more popular before the famine and continued until the

turn of the twentieth century. In the one hundred years between the first recording of immigrants in

1820 and the passing of immigration restrictions in 1924, over four and one half million Irish

immigrated to the United States.

HOW THEY PAID TO COME TO AMERICA Most of the pre-famine immigrants were single

men who found jobs as laborers in the North and Northeast (Purcell 32). Although these were low

paying jobs, they were still better than what they had in Ireland. Another thing typical of the Irish

immigrants in the pre-famine years was something called the chain migration (Purcell 36). The first

immigrants found jobs, saved most or all of their money, and sent money or tickets for sailing on the

ships to relatives in the old country. By very hard work, immigrants made it possible to pay for their

entire family to follow them to America. To save up all of the passage money was very difficult but

they worked hard and did it. Many immigrants from other countries also used the chain migration

idea, and it is still common for immigrants to use this system. However, the Irish were the first to use

chain migration in such a big way.

THE LAWS OF IMMIGRATION During the 200 years that this country has been in existence, the

United States immigration policy has developed and been modified to meet the changing needs of

the nation. In 1776, right after the Declaration of independence was signed, Congress made

qualitative restrictions for the immigration of people from other countries to the United States in

order to make sure the good health of foreigners entering this country (Danilov 3).


were very important to the Irish Americans. The church in Ireland had been a bulwark of strength

against English oppression. When the Irish suffered the same hostility as the British to their religious

beliefs, the church in America became a source of spiritual comfort. French and native-born priests

controlled the American Catholic church when the Irish arrived in large numbers, but the Irish

quickly moved up, becoming priests, nuns, and archbishops and leaders in the church. Archbishop

John Hughes of New York in the 1840s was the first of many Irish leaders in the Catholic Church.

Politics and religion helped the Irish overcome the bitter poverty they faced in the mid 1800s. As of

1980, the nearly 20 million Irish Americans were more likely than other immigrants to be

professionals and managers. Irish Americans had also earned the admiration of other Americans

through many special contributions to culture in the United States. The novelists John O’Hara, F.

Scott Fitzgerald, Mary McCarthy, and William Kennedy; the playwright Eugene O’Neill; and the

film actor Spencer Tracy are just a few of the Irish Americans who have been well known because

of their talents (Reimers 53-54). After the Irish arrived in America, they became known as a group

that was distinctly different. First of all, almost all the Irish immigrants of this period were Roman

Catholic. Lord Baltimore tried to establish a haven for Catholics in Maryland, but America was

solidly Protestant and was prejudiced against the Catholics (Reimers 52). Since many of the Irish

refugees, arrived with almost no money and were often sick, the Americans had a poor opinion of

Irish Catholics, and their very large numbers caused fear and panic in the Protestant Americans. The

Irish “hordes” were the targets of discrimination for decades. Many Americans thought they were

poor, dirty, uneducated, and participated in an “alien religion.” It was not until the 1960 election of

President John Kennedy, a Roman Catholic descendent of pre-famine Irish immigrants, who faced

anti-Catholic propaganda throughout his career, that the Irish finally got rid of some of the

discrimination (Purcell 33).

POLITICS IN AMERICA Irishmen did well in America, many becoming well known in their

community because of their involvement in local politics. The Irish arrived in the United States at a

time when the political procedures were becoming more democratic. By 1840 nearly every white

male in the United States, rich or poor, could cast his ballot in elections. One man described it this

way: “the gentry yielded to professional politicians who viewed party management as a vocation.”

The Irish soon became part of these “party managers,” who had enormous influence within the

Democratic Party (Reimers 52). By the end of the 1840’s, the Irish “bosses” were controlling ward

politics in cities with lots of Irish, such as Boston and New York, and later, Jersey City and

Chicago. In an era lacking in social services for the poor, ward bosses acted as one-man charitable

institutions. They raised funds for christenings, weddings, and funerals, gave money to poor widows,

and did many favors for people who were living on the edge of being homeless or starving. In

return, the grateful people turned out for every election and cast their ballot as they were told

(Reimers 50-54). Under this system which lasted well into the 20th century, Irishmen won mayoral

elections across the nation. Boss Frank Hague of Jersey City held the office of mayor for three

decades, from 1917 to 1947, and Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, the last of the big-city bosses,

reigned over Chicago from 1955 to 1970. Many of these men are in the history of American

politics, but especially Boston mayor James Michael Curley, who once won office while in jail.

Irish-American politicians had huge power in cities, but they did badly when running for national

office. In 1928, Al Smith, who rose through New York City politics to the governorship of the

state, ran for President of the United States. The voters rejected Smith, in part because of his

Catholicism, and a Catholic was not voted into the nation’s top office until the election of John F.

Kennedy in 1960. Once the Irish were in power, the Irish politicians used their powers to hire all

Irish as they could, such as policemen, firemen, and civil servants. City halls, operating under the

rule of Irishmen, were often giving construction contracts to Irish men. The political system thus

became an important way for the American Irish better themselves in their cities (Reimers 53).


that when they got to a port city, which is where they stayed. That is why Boston, New York, and

Montreal became the homes of many of the Irish. For the first time, there were more Irish than there

were English at American ports. By 1860, the Irish made up seventy percent of America’s

immigrants (Sandler 14-16). Since the Irish found many jobs along the transportation routes, Irish

towns started to appear, near railroads, throughout the United States. In the late 1800’s, many Irish

communities were well-established in areas such as San Francisco and New Orleans. The largest

numbers of Irish, however, were in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. These

states contained more than half the total Irish-American population (Anderson 57). In many families,

the women and the children worked, but the amount of money they made was only enough for

housing and food. In Boston, one historian tells us; the Irish lived in “crammed hovels without

furniture and with patches of dirty straw for bedding.” In New York City, Irish families lived in the

city’s worst, overcrowded slums. Under such conditions it is no wonder that Irish neighborhoods

were troubled with diseases like typhoid, typhus, and cholera. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that

public health programs gained wide acceptance and improved the living conditions of the immigrants

(Griffen 19).

MAKING A LIVING IN AMERICA In port cities such as New York and Chicago, the Irish

easily found jobs. Not much skill or education was needed to work unloading and loading ships on

the docks or digging up bad streets and building new ones. Nor did the Irishmen have trouble

finding unskilled jobs in the nation’s rapidly growing transportation system. Three thousand miles of

canals were built before the Civil War, along with 30,000 miles of railroad track. All that was

needed to do these jobs was a strong body and a willingness to work for only one dollar a day. The

Irish were able to do both of these. The Irish were the ones that built the Illinois Central Railroad

connecting Chicago and New Orleans, and later they helped lay the tracks for the Union Pacific

Railroad (Purcell 40). Irishmen held railway and construction jobs, but it was the Irish women who

served as the main power within their community. Unlike the other culture groups in America among

the Irish there were more women than men. In Ireland women had often postponed marriage in

order to work, because of the need for money for families. Because of this, many young Irish

women had the freedom and money to make the journey to America. Once in America, Irish

women did the same things as if they had never left Ireland. They were the group that stayed single

the longest. These young women could always find jobs as domestics, an occupation rejected by

many other ethnic groups. In fact, the figure of the obstinate Irish maid “Bridget” became an ethnic

stereotype that lingered well into the twentieth Century (Anderson 59). Historian Hasia Diner has

described marriages among poor Irish Americans as “stormy and short lived. Irish families

sometimes suffered from violence and desertion on the part of husbands and fathers (Purcell 50).” In

her book, Erin’s Daughters in America, published in 1983, Diner writes: “An Irish immigrant woman

who chose in the 1860s or 1870s to marry a construction worker in Boston or Providence or a

factory hand living in New York or Worcester Massachusetts, ran a very high risk of having

someday to be the sole support for a house full of children, existing on starvation’s edge.” For these

reasons, Irish women often stayed single for years, and once they married, they often headed

single-parent households. In 1870, in Philadelphia, 16.9 percent of Irish women were the heads of

their families compared to only 5.9 percent of German females. Only blacks had a higher rate of

female-headed families (Purcell 48-52). The Irish during the famine years (and the decades

following) lived the same as their pre-famine predecessors: they stayed in the cities of the North and

Northeast, looking for employment as construction workers or, as in the case of many Irish

immigrant women, as domestic servants. Over all, the Irish had no interest whatsoever in moving

back to Ireland. Even though land in America was rich and plentiful compared to the land in Ireland,

very few Irish immigrants had the money to buy farms. During the years after the end of the famine

immigration, most Irish immigrants changed gradually from mainly men to mainly women, although

the average age of Irish immigrants was very young. The Irish immigrant women tended to do

domestic service jobs or millwork, but the men gradually made more and held more important jobs

during the late nineteenth century. As the second generation Irish discovered the power of voting in

America, and as American cities grew and needed people to operate the governments and public

services, the Irish pretty much took over the jobs as city firemen and police (Gmelch 68).

CONCLUSION The US is the most diverse nation on earth because of immigrants, but the

immigrants were almost never welcomed to the US “with open arms.” Because of the huge numbers

of Irish immigrants, the telling of their “story” brings a more full understanding of what it means to live

in a free land, and a more full appreciation of the life we lead today, as well as a thankfulness to

those who, long ago, paved the way.

Anderson, Kelly. Immigration. San Diego: Lucent, 1993. Danilov, Dan. Immigrating to the USA.

1st ed. British Columbia: Self-Counsel, 1978. Danilov, Dan. Immigrating to the USA. 5th ed. British

Columbia: Self-Counsel, 1989. Gmelch, Sharon. Irish Life and Traditions. Dublin: O’Brien, 1986.

Griffin, William. The Irish Americans. Hong Kong: Hugh Lauter Levin, 1998. “Immigrants.”

November 1993. 10 November 1998 . Long, Robert Emmet.

Immigration. Dublin: H. W. Wilson, 1996. Purcell, L. Edward. Immigration. Phoenix: Oryx, 1995.

Reimers, David. The Immigrant Experience. New York: Chealsea House Publishers, 1989.

Sandler, Martin. Immigrants. New York: Eagle, 1995.

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